Republicans stumped Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas on Thursday over the number of Border Patrol agents who are deployed to the southwestern border, in a testy hearing where he resisted charges that he and the administration have lost control of the boundary.
Mr. Mayorkas, in his second go-around at the department and the self-proclaimed point man for border issues for the administration, also stumbled when asked by Rep. Kat Cammack how many sectors the Border Patrol divides its operations into along the southern border.
“I cannot provide to you the precise number of sectors we have,” Mr. Mayorkas said.
He also said he’d have to get back to Ms. Cammack, Florida Republican, with the number of Border Patrol agents posted to the southern boundary.
She was stunned.
“As secretary of homeland security, we have a border crisis and you can’t tell me how many agents we have, roughly, approximately, on the southwest border?” she demanded.
During a testy hearing with the House Homeland Security Committee, Mr. Mayorkas repeatedly touted his deep experience in government, first as a federal prosecutor then with more than seven years in the Homeland Security Department under President Obama, both as head of the legal immigration branch and then as the No. 2 person for the department.
He said that experience gave him confidence that he, President Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris have the right strategy to solve the border situation.
To that end, Mr. Mayorkas bristled at complaints from Republicans that Ms. Harris has bungled her own border assignment.
The secretary said it was a “misunderstanding” that Ms. Harris is the border czar. That’s his job, he said, while Ms. Harris is focused on the international relations aspect of trying to keep people from coming from Central America.
“It’s my responsibility to manage the border,” he said.
When Rep. Ralph Norman, South Carolina Republican, pointed to Ms. Harris’ laughter when she was asked when she would visit the border, Mr. Mayorkas rushed to the vice president’s defense.
“I consider that question to be quite unfair,” Mr. Mayorkas said.
He added: “The vice president served as attorney general of a border state, California, and is quite familiar with the situation on the border.”
Mr. Norman had gotten off to a bad start with Mr. Mayorkas when he opened with asking whether the secretary had medical checkups, and whether they happened in person. His point was that it takes an up-close look to get a handle on things, but Mr. Mayorkas seemed miffed at what he called “quite a private question.”
The secretary also seemed nonplussed by Ms. Cammack’s grilling.
“I think you’re aware of the fact that the tens of thousands of Border Patrol agents that we have. You’re well aware of the responsibilities that they executive and the talent and expertise they bring to the border,” he told the congresswoman.
“I am, and there’s roughly 20,000 for both the north and southern borders,” Ms. Cammack responded.
The hearing exposed the deep rift between Mr. Mayorkas and congressional Republicans, who say the border gains made by the Trump administration have been squandered in five months under Mr. Biden.
They pointed to the latest unauthorized border crossing numbers, which are the highest in 20 years.
Mr. Mayorkas said that has little to do with Mr. Biden’s policy changes.
“Those of us who have addressed challenges at the border for many, many years have seen spikes, decreases, spikes again, decreases again. It’s a very dynamic situation,” Mr. Mayorkas said.
He said he blames what he called “root causes of migration,” and said it’s “overdue” that the government address them.
But that’s an explanation with which undocumented immigrants themselves disagree.
Those coming right now have told Border Patrol agents and news reporters alike that they think they have a better chance of getting in and gaining a foothold in the U.S. thanks to Mr. Biden’s policy changes.
Indeed, that was the position of Mr. Mayorkas’ old boss, former Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson, when Mr. Mayorkas served as deputy secretary in the Obama years.
At that time Homeland Security argued to federal courts that U.S. policy is a critical factor in illegal immigrants’ decision-making.
One of those officials was Tae Johnson, who is now acting director at Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and who said in a sworn declaration in 2015 that catch-and-release of illegal immigrants does invite more to come.
Catch-and-release was mostly ended under the Trump administration but has come back under the Biden administration, with tens of thousands of border jumpers being released into communities each month.
Among the changes Mr. Biden and Mr. Mayorkas made are deleting agreements with other countries to stem the flow of people crossing their boundaries, erasing the “Remain in Mexico” policy that prevented catch-and-release, and granting new chances for undocumented immigrants to get work permits.